Don’t touch the art. That’s the cardinal rule in museums, especially with masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer” hanging on the walls. But in Jessica Dickey’s pensive new play, “The Guard,” a senior museum guard and two young painters get into an oddly antic mood. They want to poke the Rembrandt.
“Touch it,” one of them goads. “Touch the art!”
Once they do, it’s through the looking glass in Dickey’s gentle fantasy at Ford’s Theatre, a venue that’s spiritually in tune with the play’s themes of culture, history and mortality. Dickey’s script zips us to Rembrandt’s Amsterdam and Homer’s Greece before circling home to the 21st century to see just what we’ve learned about life through art, and vice versa.
“The Guard” is billed as a comedic drama, and that’s fair for this premiere (part of the city’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival). Punch lines fly as the mohawked young street artist Dodger banters irreverently with Henry, the guard of the title, and with Madeline, an art student who sets up her easel to copy a Rembrandt. Copying is allowed, though the guards have to measure Madeline’s canvas to make sure it’s not the same size as the original. (The play is full of such interesting details as we get to know Henry, who’s tutoring Dodger on the kid’s first day as a guard.)
But even though Dickey’s script is frisky enough to time-hop and give us a Homer who’s strikingly reminiscent of a stand-up comic, the lens of “The Guard” is death. Very quickly we learn that Henry’s poet husband, Simon, is terminally ill, and Madeline drags heartache in with her canvas. The script is so saturated with grief that when we meet Rembrandt, his first wife, pointedly, is dead. Homer’s wife is dead, too.
Grief, like art, makes you see things differently, and if Dickey’s introspective drama at times over-talks the mysteries of life and death (especially in a cliched and sometimes dull encounter between the tortured genius Rembrandt and his unhappy, rebellious son), director Sharon Ott’s production commands unflinching respect. “The Guard” hovers on a fine edge that could easily stumble into a no-go maudlin zone, yet Ott’s estimable actors manage to wear their hearts on their sleeves without ever asking you to blubber in the aisles.
That sober tone is anchored by Mitchell Hebert’s sharp turn as the muted, pained Henry. This guard seems to be defined by his job; he’s easy to listen to as he describes the museum’s morning routines, and his sensitivity to the art plays out on Hebert’s wondering face. With soft tones and precise inquisitive pauses, Hebert conjures quiet forbearance and emotional confusion that together verge on the heroic, and is totally recognizable. You’ve seen or been this person before.
Craig Wallace is Hebert’s vibrant opposite number as Simon, the gregarious dying poet. He also plays the entertainingly broad Homer, just as Hebert doubles as the flinty yet fatherly Rembrandt — although the double imprint that Dickey seems to have in mind as we watch similar men in different ages doesn’t land as satisfactorily as you would hope. The slangy classical interludes aren’t as confident as the modern scenes at the beginning and end, though James Kronzer’s elegant design certainly spins us smoothly from a high-toned museum to Rembrandt’s studio, Greek ruins and Simon’s bedside.
Kathryn Tkel’s vulnerable, bright performance as Madeline pivotally draws you into the show’s funny-sad world, and smart portrayals are added by Tim Getman (doubling as a doltish guard and a kindly nurse) and Josh Sticklin (impish as Dodger, both bitter and worried as Rembrandt’s son Titus). This group scores with the comedy, but that looks like the easy part of Dickey’s play. They also deftly render the reflective, delicate nature of “The Guard,” and that feels like a taller order.
The Guard by Jessica Dickey. Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Directed by Sharon Ott. Costumes, Laree Lentz; lights, Rui Rita; sound design and original music, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 18 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets: $20-$64. Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.fords.org.